Emma Benoit seemingly had it all – strikingly beautiful, a popular high school cheerleader, and a modeling job after finishing her junior year.

But the 16-year-old in Ascension Parish, La. (south of Baton Rouge) was roiling with depression inside, about which she had never told a soul. In June 2017, Emma took her father’s gun from her parents’ bedroom and attempted suicide by shooting herself in the chest.

Luckily, she survived, but a spinal cord injury left her paralyzed. Benoit – who just turned 23 on Aug. 29 — hasn’t stopped moving since that fateful day, as her life-changing experience helped her find faith and purpose; and propelled her on a mission to use her painful experience and miraculous recovery to help others.

A free screening of the documentary “My Ascension” and panel discussion will take place at WIU-QC’s Riverfront Hall in Moline on Thursday, Sept. 21 at 5 p.m.

Her inspiring story is told in a 2021 documentary, “My Ascension,” which is being shown on PBS stations nationwide this month, National Suicide Prevention Month, including WQPT, Quad Cities PBS.

The Moline-based station is hosting a special screening of excerpts on Thursday, Sept. 21, with a panel discussion about suicide prevention and mental wellness.

The free event will start at 5 p.m., at Riverfront Hall, Western Illinois University, 3300 River Drive, Moline. The full feature-length documentary will be shown on WQPT on Sept. 21 at 9 p.m., and Sunday, Sept. 24 at 10 p.m.

The Moline screening will include a panel discussion moderated by Dr. Carrie Alexander-Albritton, Professor, Department of Counselor Education and College Student Personnel at Western Illinois University — along with panel members William Ivarone, Director of Counseling Services at Augustana College, and Jamie Haney of Vera French Community Health Center.

The CDC estimates that 2022 saw a record high number of suicides in America — rising from 48,183 in 2021 to an estimated 49,449 suicide deaths in 2022, an increase of 2.6%. By comparison, there were 26,031 homicides nationwide in 2021.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for those age 10-24 and suicide deaths increased in this group 62% from 2007 through 2021 (from 6.8 deaths per 100,000 to 11.0).

Emma Benoit speaks with Local 4 News on Sept. 8, 2023 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“There are so many culminating factors that manifest in youth struggling with mental health, but ultimately, suicide has always been a prevalent issue in society,” Benoit said in a recent interview with Local 4. “One suicide is too many, but it’s countless, and that is really terrifying. When I think about how high the rates are, it’s devastating thinking about someone struggling, but ultimately, the reality of suicide is that it’s a very isolating and often-times impulsive decision, and it’s so hard to penetrate that.”

People who are struggling with this pain are blinded by their depression, and their brains “are not giving them the accurateness of their reality,” she said.

Those suffering with mental illness prevent them from seeing that light at the end of the tunnel.

Having a religious foundation can help people see a future, Benoit said. “Having faith can be very crucial if you have no hope,” she said. “If you don’t have faith, you essentially have no hope, and for a lot of people, their faith is their source of hope. But that’s not for everyone. I do know that religion as a whole has really damaged a lot of people.

“I think the concept that some religions have that suicide is a sin,” she said. “It can go both ways. Religion can help people or hurt people in a way.”

“My Ascension” premiered in early 2021 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Ascension Parish is where she grew up, and “My Ascension” has a double meaning.

“It’s how I ascended, rose above everything,” Benoit said. She was not a very religious person before 2017, but her journey tremendously boosted her faith and she now considers herself very spiritual.

“I totally believe my story was divine intervention,” that God saved her life, she said. “I fully put all of my belief in there’s a greater purpose for life and humanity. I believe in the creator of the universe, and I believe He has a divine purpose for each and every one of us. I believe my story is a testament to that.”

Benoit says her journey is an ascension, to view life through a different lens, and suicide prevention is her purpose.

A normal life

Emma has an older brother who’s she’s been best friends with. She grew up in a solid, middle-class home, as a spunky, vivacious kid. Cheerleading was always her passion.

“Being a cheerleader, there’s an element of perfection that is desired and naturally, because I’m a perfectionist by nature, this element of perfection negatively affected me,” Benoit said.

Benoit was 16 when she attempted to take her life in June 2017.

Her mental health struggles began in grade school, with anxiety, and Emma was bullied in middle school. At the time, she didn’t think much of it.

“I never really found it appropriate for me to reach out for help,” she recalled. “I was constantly struggling with self-image issues, body issues. I would struggle with dealing with stress.”

Benoit had a big fear of failure and became a perfectionist, which damaged her self-worth.

“I was constantly putting pressure on myself in every area of life,” she said. “It was very overwhelming and very exhausting. Having this need to be seen and validated, and have this reputation that you’re trying to uphold, it became really exhausting. Ultimately, when I got to high school, I began struggling with depression. I had no idea what these feelings meant or why they were there.”

She isolated with her pain and anxiety, and never discussed them with anyone else.

“It became too big for me to handle on my own and all the thoughts I was having, leading up to my suicide attempt, were impulsive and were hard to fight,” Benoit said, noting she impulsively acted upon those thoughts when she was 16, attempting to take her own life.

She feared that if she revealed her struggles, adults in her life wouldn’t know how to help her.

“If I brought my problems to people in my life, they would shut me down, not really listen to me and dismiss me in a way,” Benoit said. “I fully believed in the stigma and I felt ashamed of my feelings. And because of that, I never felt my feelings were justified.”

Never sought help

She assumed people with mental health problems had a much different life than hers, and didn’t feel her depression was justified. Benoit didn’t think treatment would be appropriate for her, so she never reached out.

“I felt like if I reached out for help, it’d be worse than what I was dealing with anyway,” she said, noting admitting problems would be the same as admitting defeat.

“There was so much pressure I was putting on myself, to be perfect in every aspect,” Benoit said. “Admitting I was struggling with X, Y and Z would only taint that image I was trying so hard to uphold and it would make me feel I was a weak individual.”

She said she always had to work very hard to get good grades, while many of her friends were high-achieving honors students who never seemed to struggle.

“It makes you feel a sense of shame in a way – why can’t I be that way? What’s wrong with me?” Benoit recalled. “Because I didn’t feel I was capable of trying to reach those achievements, I always felt like there was something wrong with me. That only added to the feelings I was feeling about myself. School was always stressful for me because of that.”

She was popular in high school, but got mixed up in some of the wrong, toxic crowd.

“It was competition with the girls – very drama-filled, and there was like a hierarchy in my friend group,” Benoit said, noting she wasn’t comfortable going to those friends with her struggles. “I always felt there was an element of competition.”

She drew confidence from cheerleading and was very proud of that.

“I turned to that, to boost my self-esteem,” Benoit recalled. “When I wasn’t performing at my best, or wasn’t doing the level I desired, it hurt like 10 times more because there was that expectation on myself.”

In high school, she wasn’t necessarily bullied but there were people in her friend group that “tore you down, made you feel ‘less than’,” she said.

With girls, Benoit wanted to be seen “as cool, and funny, and pretty, and there’s an expectation for perfection,” she said. “When you have a group of girls who are insecure, you deal with the judgment, the unspoken judgment. With guys, it’s a little bit different. I think guys deal with feeling the need to be masculine, so they struggle with the need to open up. They think they’d be perceived as a weak man.”

A bookmark for children with the 988 suicide and crisis lifeline emergency telephone number is displayed by Lance Neiberger, a volunteer with the Natrona County Suicide Prevention Task Force, while they speak about mental health and suicide awareness in Casper, Wyoming on Aug. 14, 2022. After his son died by suicide, Lance Neiberger thought of taking his own life. Instead, the petroleum engineer — who lives in central Wyoming — is spearheading the difficult battle to curb the western state’s suicide rate, the highest in the nation. (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s hard to deal with problems, when many people in society give the message to “Suck it up, deal with it, don’t be so weak,” Benoit said. “The reality is, when someone is struggling with anything, all we want is for someone to listen, empathize with us and give us some compassion. Because people who don’t struggle don’t understand it, it’s hard to give those people compassion they deserve.”

People in pain sometimes feel if they reach out, they won’t get the help they need, she said. “There’s not enough education or awareness around people who are struggling.”

Her parents were raised in an environment that if people spoke of their pain, they were unnecessarily dwelling on the negative.

“But if we don’t talk about our feelings, we just continue to suppress them, that’s only setting us up for a lifetime of dysfunction,” Benoit said. Once you figure out the root of those feelings, then you can tackle the issues and prevent suicides.

Afraid to admit struggles

People have asked Benoit why it was so hard for her to open up to friends or family.

“I didn’t have the words or the courage to admit to anyone in my life, that I was struggling with self-esteem, with fear of the future,” she said. “I was afraid to admit all of that because I didn’t want them to judge me.”

Benoit turned 23 on Aug. 29, 2023.

Benoit felt her parents may have been disappointed, or felt they failed, if she revealed her pain.

“The overwhelming idea around mental health and suicide is that a person’s life looks unrepairable,” she said. “That they’re in a constant state of sadness and struggle. But the reality of depression is that it’s not that – it can be the kid who’s bubbly and smiling, and masks it all, and holds it all inside.”

“That was my reality, but unfortunately the topics around this issue was not something that anyone in my life was privy to. I felt if I was to go to them with this, they’d be disappointed, confused, they would take it personally.”

She didn’t want to burden her parents any more than they already were.

“The sad reality is, depression has nothing to do with things, but everything to do with emotional pathways and how we feel about certain things, and lack of coping skills as well,” Benoit said.

She knew where her dad kept his gun (it was not locked away) in her parents’ bedroom, for protection in the house.

“That day, it felt like everything came crashing down,” Benoit said, noting three days before, she was modeling in New York City. “I kind of got to escape my reality for a little bit, but coming back home and facing that reality really hit me like a train. I never felt like I’d be able to bounce back.”

She felt like she was rebelling against her parents, was depressed, and things reached a boiling point, that June before her senior year.

“I never felt I was really good at school and that’s a really crucial time for a lot of young people,” Benoit said, noting she didn’t have plans to go to college. “I felt lost, with no sense of direction or identity. I felt like everyone in my life would be better off without me and that feeling of being a burden rung so loud in my head.”

“The darkness of it, when I thought ‘You don’t need to be here; you can take your life. You don’t need to deal with this; you can just eliminate yourself from this life’ – were just screaming in my head so loud,” she said. At that moment, she felt an intense physical urge to attempt suicide.

“Because I knew where the weapon was located, I had access to the means,” Benoit recalled. “Unfortunately, because of my struggles and my impulses all along, it led me to doing that.”

A final plea for help

She freaked out and impulsively called her mom.

“I felt it was a last attempt to cry for help and reach out for help,” Benoit said. “She answered, but at the time she was working at a job where she had to place me on hold. Unfortunately, because there was that disconnect between us on the phone, I felt like I’m just burdening her even more, so that’s how she knew to come home and rescue me. She came back to the phone, and I was not responsive. She had mother’s intuition and her gut instinct told her to go home.”

Fortunately, after Emma was paralyzed, she did four months of physical therapy and was able to make great progress. Benoit regained her strength and physical mobility. Her sensation in her legs returned, and she can walk with the aid of a walker.

“I can live on my own,” Benoit said. “When I travel and do speaking engagements, I’m in my chair, but other than that I am really independent. I’m really grateful for what my body has given me back through all of this.”

In 2018, she attended college for a semester, but decided to work on suicide prevention advocacy full-time. She’s planning to return to school in fall 2024 and study psychology.

She wants to equip young people with the knowledge and skills she didn’t have at that age. The film director recommended she work with Hope Squad, a school-based suicide prevention program which is profiled in “My Ascension.”

“I just really like what they do with schools and students specifically,” Benoit said. “That is really the target audience for this. If we’re really going to see a change in mental health, it’s gonna start with the youth.”

“I wanted to equip other young people who may be struggling, to know they are not alone, and to give students on the campus the tools to help someone struggling,” Benoit said.

“At the end of the day, we all struggle with things. Life is challenging,” she said. “We can all help each other through our struggles. The wound is where the light shines through. So even if you’re struggling or feel broken, that doesn’t mean you will struggle forever or you are broken.”

How the film was made

Greg Dicharry, the director of “My Ascension” (90 minutes), reached out to her, after seeing Emma’s website, liferejuvenated.org, where she kept a blog on the topic of mental health and suicide.

The home page of Benoit’s website, liferejuvenated.org.

Her first blog post (Dec. 28, 2017) praised God and said in part: “I was saved to tell my story; to bring others closer to Him through my journey. He wants me to give hope to others; to use my story and my new-found faith to help strengthen the faith of others.”

Dicharry was looking for panel members for the 2018 Kevin Hines documentary he worked on, “Suicide: The Ripple Effect,” which also premiered in Baton Rouge. (Hines has spoken in the QC and will return Nov. 4, 2023 as keynote speaker for the second-annual Starry Night Gala.)

The “My Ascension” director was a producer for 2018’s “Suicide: The Ripple Effect.”

“They thought I’d be a good fit, and from there, the relationship kind of formed,” Benoit recalled. “He came to my house one day and had the intention of doing a PSA and from there, it snowballed and we had so much footage, we could make an entire documentary.”

Dicharry was a producer on the Hines documentary. At 19 in the year 2000, Hines survived a suicide attempt after he jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and he is one of the nation’s leading suicide prevention advocates.

This month (National Suicide Prevention Month) is the first time PBS stations are airing “My Ascension,” since it premiered in Baton Rouge in February 2021. The first PBS station to show it was Sept. 5 in south Florida. Most PBS stations (through World Channel) are showing the film Thursday, Sept. 14 at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., and Friday, Sept. 15 at 9 a.m. The station showings are listed on the film website HERE.

Many friends and family attended the Louisiana premiere, some driving hours, Benoit said. “It was overwhelming in all the best ways,” she recalled. “I had begun sharing my story only eight months after my attempt itself, so the concept of sharing my story and my testimony was not new to me.”

Benoit has regained use of her legs and usually walks with the help of a walker, but still uses a wheelchair to travel longer distances.

“It was so overwhelmingly positive to have all of my friends and family come and support such an important cause and something I’m very passionate about,” Benoit said. “I got to meet with people who had been following my story, following my journey on Facebook, online, and seeing them in person was special.”

It is common for screening cities to host a panel discussion about the topic, Benoit said. She attended a showing in Coralville, Iowa Aug. 20, organized by the Big O Foundation, a local group started by a family who lost a loved one to suicide (15-year-old Owen Skelley, a Burlington, Iowa native who took his life March 3, 2022), where Emma participated in a Q&A.

Benoit (front row, center) participated in a Q&A following a screening in Coralville, Iowa on Aug. 20, 2023 (the OS shirts are in honor of Owen Skelley, a Burlington native who died by suicide in March 2022).

She has brought the film to 25 states so far, traveling about twice a month.

Benoit said it is profoundly valuable to meet families who have been personally affected by suicide, since she’s both a survivor and an empath.

“It just continues to reignite a fire in me, to continue to do this,” she said. “It really re-emphasizes the need, when I meet someone who lost a loved one or is struggling. It’s different to meet someone who’s actively struggling than when I meet people who have lost loved ones.”

A call to action

Benoit wanted the film to feature a “call to action,” to raise hope and awareness of suicide prevention, so viewers could take tangible steps after seeing it.

It can be hard to see light in the darkness, and a goal of the film is to provide people “the ability to see that light at the end of their tunnel,” Benoit said. “We all have something to be hopeful for.”

She wants people to know it’s OK to struggle and it’s not weak. That struggle doesn’t last forever.

One of the slogans of the Gray Matters Collective is “It’s OK To Be Not OK” (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“At the end of the day, mental health is part of our overall health and it’s something we constantly have to work on,” Benoit said, noting she has coping skills and emergency contacts in her phone to lean on.

“All these things are tools in my toolkit, in case I do struggle again someday and I hope to encourage people to formulate that toolkit for themselves,” she said.

“I hope that people really understand what mental health is,” she said. “Any individual, regardless of their situation, can struggle at any point in time. Just understand that we can all be there to support someone who’s struggling. You don’t have to be a professional. All it takes is being an empathetic listener and wanting to support someone who’s going through a hard time.

“I also hope people who are struggling can take away hope and inspiration through my journey and my story,” Benoit said. “I want to provide a new sense of hope for people. Whatever it is you’re going through, it is not the end of your story and you can continue to write your story.”

She also wants to work to increase financial help for low-income individuals and families to afford mental health treatment.

The 24-hour 988 suicide and crisis lifeline launched in July 2022.

“Access to care is one of the crucial pillars in this movement,” Benoit said. “That’s why I’m an advocate for 988, which is the national hotline for not only suicide, but any emotional/mental distress that you’re in. You can call that hotline 24 hours a day, and you’ll be put in touch with someone who is willing to listen to you and talk to you.”

Since the federally mandated crisis hotline’s new number launched in July 2022, 988 has received 4 million calls, according to a KFF report — up 33% from the previous year. (The hotline previously used a 10-digit number, 800-273-8255, which remains active but is not promoted.)

If you know someone at risk, stay close to them and maintain a safety net of people to check on them, Benoit said.

“Means restriction is so crucial for someone who is suicidal,” she added, meaning that you should remove potential ways for people to harm themselves. “And ultimately, providing actual ways that they can help themselves.”

It’s giving them objectives to achieve every day – even if it’s just getting out of bed and taking a shower.

“It’s crucial that we give people the unconditional love and support that they need when they’re struggling,” Benoit said. “Instead of assuming that by telling them, ‘You have a nice car, a great family, why can’t you just be happy?’ Mental health is truly an aspect of overall health. If we just write it off as a personal problem, we’re never gonna be able to tackle the issue of suicide.

“The reality is, we don’t just tell people with asthma to breathe better,” she said. “So we don’t tell people with mental health challenges to just feel better. It doesn’t work like that.”

If someone is outwardly happy and you can’t see warning signs, it’s hard to intervene.

“What it really takes is, encouraging an environment where vulnerability is welcomed and accepted,” Benoit said. “It’s just a matter of rearranging the way that we communicate.”

In her house, she didn’t feel comfortable talking about small things that were bothering her, so naturally she didn’t want to discuss the big things.

“It’s creating an environment where your children feel like they can talk to you about anything, regardless of how big or small it is,” she said.

Supporting QC efforts

Benoit has brought “My Ascension” to the Quad Cities twice in the past, including a meet-and-greet she did after a June 2023 showing at the Rock Island Holiday Inn.  She loves everything that Foster’s Voice and Gray Matters Collective (two local suicide prevention groups) are doing.

QC students involved in the Gray Matters Collective.

“Gray Matters Collective is so incredibly powerful and I just love Haley and her testimony, and I love the whole crew with Foster’s Voice. They’re such great people,” she said. “They’re really passion driven and that’s what you like to see when you’re doing hard work. Seeing people that really have a passion for others.”

Haley DeGreve, a 2020 Augustana College alum, co-founded Gray Matters in 2019; is its president, and does mental health talks around the country. Benoit agrees that Gray Matters high school and college chapters can spread nationwide.

“When you have something that has substance, has meaning and purpose – in the education system, which is really the target audience for mental health education, I think it has potential,” she said. “If she ever needed contacts in the Louisiana system, I would be her girl for that, because I’d love to see that happen in Louisiana.”

For more information on “My Ascension,” visit its website HERE.

QC walks this month

Three more annual walks to help prevent suicide are happening in the QC –

  • Sept. 16 at 9:30 a.m. — NAMI Walks Your Way, Bend XPO, East Moline
  • Sept. 24 at 1 p.m. — Illinois QC Out of the Darkness Walk, Wharton Field House, Moline
  • Sept. 30 at 11 a.m. — Iowa QC Out of the Darkness Walk, Garfield Park, Davenport

The event this Saturday at Bend XPO starts at 8 a.m. with pre-walk activities. You can get more information on that HERE.

The Sept. 24 Out of the Darkness Walk for Suicide Prevention is at Moline’s Browning Field (Wharton Field House track), 1800 20th Ave. You can register for that HERE.

An American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) Out of the Darkness Walk is an opportunity to walk together toward a world without suicide while encouraging a greater understanding of mental health and supporting each other in times of need.

Since 2004, Out of the Darkness Walks have brought together communities to raise public awareness and funds to support suicide prevention. Over 400 such walks are occurring this fall across the country. An estimated 275,000 participants contribute their voices to support this lifesaving research and education, according to AFSP.

Funds raised from the walks help go toward care and support for those who have lost loved ones to suicide, education and research.

Register for the Sept. 30 Davenport walk HERE. For more information on AFSP, visit its website HERE.